Dog's dinner: Schwarzenegger as John "Breacher" Wharton.
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Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger still allowed to make films? David Ayer's Sabotage

Schwarzenegger's mere presence causes the plausibility of a scene to drop by 75 per cent - so it's a mystery why a capable director like David Ayer would cast him in his latest pulpy thriller.

Sabotage (15)
dir: David Ayer

More than 40 years into his performing career, Arnold Schwarzenegger looks as confused as the rest of us about how he got where he is. He can’t act. He has only basic stirrings of comic awareness. He suggests no particular quality other than immovability. He is 66, his body no longer a “brown condom stuffed with walnuts”, as Clive James put it, and more like a varnished sideboard with veins. His mere presence causes the plausibility of a scene to drop instantly by 75 per cent. This becomes 90 per cent should he be called on to say anything.

None of which mattered in the 1980s when he was galumphing through cheerfully coarse action movies, ruining the pattern only occasionally by being skilful in something perfect such as The Terminator. His latest film, Sabotage, is more troublesome. It has a lively, even witty, screenplay by its director, David Ayer, who is a pedlar of high-gloss pulp (Training Day, Street Kings). In casting Schwarzenegger in a demanding role, though, he overreaches himself. He may have been hoping for the sort of gentle revelation seen in James Mangold’s Cop Land, in which Sylvester Stallone played a hearing-impaired small-town sheriff. But Stallone had always possessed reserves of pathos unavailable to his Austrian rival. This is not to disparage Schwarzenegger: ask the family pooch to cook steak au poivre and it would be cruel to punish the poor creature for its inability to do so. Schwarzenegger is that dog and Sabotage is dinner.

He plays John “Breacher” Wharton, a big deal in the Drug Enforcement Administration. Eight months earlier, John’s wife was killed by a Mexican cartel. They sent pieces of her to John’s home every day for a fortnight. How cruel is that? If you’re not in to sign for those packages, you’ve got to ask a neighbour to do it, or arrange redelivery, or even schlep down to the post office depot.

These days, John heads an undercover special ops team in which everyone has nicknames. There’s Pyro (Max Martini), so called because he once blew up a drugs lab. Monster (Sam Worthington) is a psycho. Grinder (Joe Manganiello) presumably specialises in sending pictures of his junk to any men within a 500-metre radius.

This mob is a mishmash of muscles, cornrows, tattoos and bandanas, with one female member, Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who is even more macho than the rest. The trouble is, someone has started picking off the team in sadistic ways. One member has his Winnebago dragged on to train tracks while he’s in it and another is nailed to the ceiling, though a harsher punishment might have been to confiscate their steroids or impose a lifetime ban on the attendance of lap-dancing clubs. It’s up to the short-haired, power-dressing detective Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) to find out who has it in for them. If she can deliver some snappy put-downs in the process, so much the better.

Williams is the best thing in Sabotage by some distance. In one scene, she has to swim in her pool at night, only to be surprised when Schwarzenegger appears, brandishing a bottle of Gnarly Head (possibly the only brand of wine to be named after him). Williams is naked, taken aback and forced to crane her neck to peer up at her co-star – and still gains the upper hand in the deadpan way she says: “This isn’t creepy.”

Ayer has also introduced a note of mystery into her character, inadvertently or otherwise, by placing on her office desk framed photographs of a baby while making no reference to motherhood in the script. Caroline lives alone. Is the child dead? Did she lose a custody battle? Has she been snipping pictures out of Parenting magazine as part of some crazed fantasy life? We never find out. At least it provides a distraction from the whizzing bullets and extreme gore, not to mention the mild anxiety induced every time Schwarzenegger is required to imitate an actual human emotion without giving himself a hernia.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State